“The fate of all of us here has been to know that we are prisoners of power. No one knows why us in particular, but what a great fortune!”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Christopher Alexander – Wholeness as a Fundamental Structure

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At one point after ending my career, I reflected back on my systems analysis experience and realized that I could do an excellent, full coverage, detailes analysis of a domain, have software built to the specifications in my analysis … and still the software would not get the job done. I experiences some relief and resolution around that when I shifted to product design where an emphasis was placed on narrative and story-telling in software design  … and now this from Alexander:

“In any given region of space, some subregions have higher intensity as centers, other have less. Many subregions have weak intensity or none at al. The overall configuration of the nested centers, together with their relative intensities, comprise a single structure. I define this structure as ‘the’ wholeness of that region.

This structure exists everywhere in the world …

..A crucial feature of the wholeness is that it is neutral: it simply exists … the relative harmony or ‘life’ of a given building may be understood directly from the internal cohesion of the structure. Thus, the relative life or beauty or goodness of a given part of the world may be understood, I shall argue, without reference to opinion, prejudice or philosophy, merely as a consequence of the wholeness which exists.

… This structure catches the overall character in a way which is almost mysterious, but goes to the heart of many things not easily explained. This happens because it is an overall field-like structure, a global, overall effect. It is distinct, completely distinct, from the elements or ‘parts’ which appear in that wholeness; it is unusual in our experience, yet catches what we have often thought of as the artistic intuition about the whole.

… Matisse … talks about the fact the the character of a human face is something which is deep in the person, deep in the face, and may not be captured by the local features in the normal sense at all. To make his point, he shows four drawings he made of his own face … The features, in the normal sense, are different in each drawing … And yet, in each of the four faces, we see the unmistakable face and character of Henri Matisse. As Matisse says, the character … is something deeper than features: it is an inner thing which exists over and above the features, and is not even dependent on these features.

… this ‘character’ is the wholeness … the wholeness is a global thing – easy to feel, perhaps, but hard to define … Drawing the features correctly does not necessarily achieve a resemblance … If you want to draw a person, you have to draw the wholeness. Nothing else will get the likeness.

In portraiture, as in architecture, it is the wholeness which is the real thing that lies beneath the surface, and determines everything.

… even the behavior of subatomic particles … wholeness is a truly pervasive structure, which acts at all scales.

… And the wholeness always exists in soe form, whether that place is good or bad, lifeless or alive. But we shall see next that the degree of life which exists at the place ad time also comes from the wholeness. The neutral wholeness spawns characteristics which are far from neutral – characteristics which indeed go to the very origin of right and wrong.

… this neutral wholeness ,,, is the natural origin of life. Life comes from it. Life comes from the particular details of he ways the centers in the wholeness cohere to form a unity, the way they interact, and interlock, and influence each other. The academic and difficult task of grasping the nature of this wholeness will pay us back by giving us the origin of life.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Seeing Wholeness

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“Learning to see … wholeness … not muddled or contaminated by words and concepts, is extremely difficult, but it is possible to learn …

When we see wholeness as it is, we recognize that [its] seeming parts … are merely arbitrary fragments which our minds have been directed to, because we happen to have words for them. If we open our eyes wide, and look at the scene without cognitive prejudice, we see something quite different …

Although one may be misled into thinking about design, the features which design seems to deal with are minor, have less importance. The centers – the coherent entities which form the whole – are life affirming, massive in their effect, and tremendously concrete, so that minor changes in a design could not sway them, or upset them, or change them.

… What does it mean to see all this from the point of view of wholeness? I notice the sunny part of the garden itself as a space. The place where the roses are climbing near the kitchen catches my eye. The path to the front door, and the steps from the back porch, and the door itself … of the house … all work as a unit, as a continuous center about 40 feet log. The sunshine and the roof edge, with the rafters repeating under the eve, together form a pattern of light and shadow which leads my eye, and forms a boundary of the house against the sky …

All this is much more like a pulsating unity than the ‘conceptual’ or intellectual image of the house. In our conceptual picture of the house we have things called street, garden, roof, front door, and so on. But the centers or entities which hit my eye when I take it all in as a whole are slightly different …

The difference is deeply functional, not just a matter of visual perception. The centers we see when we look at the thing in its wholeness are the ones which are responsible for its real behavior.

… the centers …. control the real behavior of the thing, the life which develops there, the real human events which happen, and the feelings people have about living there. The house-garden complex seen in its wholeness is truer perceptually and more accurate functionally than any analytic vision of the house or lot or garden taken by themselves.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Wholeness is Subtle and Fluid

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“The wholeness in any given part of space is highly fluid, and easily affected by very small changes of geometry. Indeed wholeness changes continuously through time … [and] changes in the configuration in it and around it.

… wholeness … is induced in the whole. It cannot easily be predicted from the parts, and it is useless to think of it as a relationship ‘among the parts’ …

… we must learn to avoid the danger of trying to see centers made up of parts … The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole … the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a center is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.

I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different … The center is not made from parts. Rather, it would be more true to say that most of the parts are created by the wholeness … This is analogous to the way a whirlpool is created in a stream. The stream whirls, and the centers we see as the whirling (vortex, stream-lines, etc.) are created by the larger configuration of banks, rocks and so forth. So, within this whirling, we observe a whirlpool which has formed.

… centers … are induced within the wholeness, and come from the wholeness. And because of this, the parts are adapted and modified, in shape and size, by their positions within the whole.

… The flower is not made from petals. The petals are made from their role and position in the flower.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Centers

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“We may consider any configuration in the world, a building, a street, a room full of people, a forest. Each has its wholeness. By that I mean that there are visible within that thing, a huge number of entities, at different scales … and that the totality of these entities with the way they are nested constitute the wholeness of the thing. We may think of these entities as parts (as they may sometimes seem to us) or as local wholes or sub-wholes. But, as I have illustrated in the case of the sheet of paper and the dot, these parts and entities are rarely pre-existing. They are more often themselves created by the wholeness. This apparent paradox is a fundamental issue in the nature of wholeness: the wholeness is made of parts, the parts are created by the wholeness. To understand wholeness we must have a conception in which ‘parts’ and wholes work in this holistic way.

… I have learned to call them … ‘centers.’ What this means is that each one of these entities has, as its defining mark, the fact that it appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole.

There is a mathematical reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers not as wholes. If I want to be accurate about a whole it is natural for me to ask where that whole starts and stops. Suppose, for example, I am talking about a fishpond, and want to call it a whole. To be accurate about it in a mathematical theory, I want to be able to draw a precious boundary around this whole, and say for each point in space whether it is part of this set of points or not. But this is very hard to do. Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of ..? the air which is just about the pond? … the pipes bringing in the water? These are uncomfortable questions … The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don’t know how to define it exactly. But the trouble comes from referring to it as a ‘whole.’ That kind of terminology seems to make it necessary for me to draw an exact boundary … That is the mistake.

When I call a pond a center, the situation changes … the fuzziness of edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness. But, obviously, this effect falls off … the organization of the pond is caused by a field effect in which the various elements work together to produce this phenomenon of a center. This is true physically … and it is also true mentally in my perception of that pond … The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge, and whose existence lies in the fact that they exist as centers in the portion of the world which they inhabit.

… if I call it a center, it already tells me something extra … it makes me aware of the larger pattern of things, and the way this particular element … fits into that pattern.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – The Idea of Wholeness

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The pictures embedded in this excerpt (and their locations in it) were drawn (and placed) by me in an attempt to replicate those that are presented in the book (and should therefore not be considered as belonging to the original work).

“Intuitively we may guess that the beauty of a building, its life, and its capacity to support life all come from the fact that it is working as a whole. A view of the building as a whole means that we see it as part of an extended and undivided continuum. It is not an isolated fragment in itself, but part of the world which includes the gardens, walls, trees, streets beyond its boundaries, and other buildings beyond those. And it contains many wholes within it – also unbounded and continuous in their connections.

… wholeness has been widely discussed by many writers in the 20th century: it is one of the main themes of contemporary thought …

… local parts exist chiefly in relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are also determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create.

… no one has yet formulated a way of understanding just what this wholeness is …

The general idea is that the wholeness in any part of space is the structure defined by all the various coherent entities that exist in that part of space, and the way these entities are nested in and overlap each other.

To come to grips with this idea, I start by considering a very simple structure, and examining it from the point of view of its wholeness. On the right is a sketch of a blank sheet of paper. Then I place one dot on it. Although the dot is tiny, its impact on the sheet of paper is very great.

… As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

Any reasonable description of wholeness must capture this subtle and pervasive effect. But how does it work?

What is the configuration which exists after I place the dot? It may be described like this: around the dot there is a kind of halo

… Also, on each side of the dot … rectangles of  white space become  visible, as further ‘latent’ entities

There are four of these rectangles, and where they cross four other rectangles are formed in the four corners of the sheet … These corner rectangles are formed by the overlap of the other rectangles, but are also induced by the presence of the dot. In addition there are rays visible: four white rays going out from the dot parallel to the sides and forming a cross

and four other rays going from the dot to the four corners. These four rays are not all equally strong. Their relative strength depends on where the dot is on the paper.

… Therefore, including the main entity of the sheet itself, there are at least twenty entities created in the space of the paper by the dot.

… The basic idea of the wholeness, ad I define it, is that these stronger zones or entities, together, define the structure which we recognize as the wholeness of the sheet of paper with the dot.

The entities that come into existence in a configuration are not merely cognitive. They have a real mathematical existence, and are actually occurring features of the space itself … And they have different degrees of strength.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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